A Return to Sacred Land, With Rosario Castellanos

“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript 

It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Amazon | Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.

I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.

Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.

Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.

Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.

tzeltal1

A Tzeltal woman in Bachajón (Source)

The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.

Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.

The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.

One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:

“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”

Continue reading

Advertisements

Homesick for Another World, with Ottessa Moshfegh

It’s rare for me to come across a book where I don’t want to annotate it. Over the years, I’ve learned not to fold the corners, stop writing on the edges or underline/highlight passages for the simple act of preserving them. Instead, I’ve resorted to using a nifty app called Evernote to take notes.

A Means to an End

Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s book Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) then was a rare case, because I plowed through the book without even going to Evernote once. A barometer for engagement and how I’m in love with the book is how much I would go on the app to take notes (which could be quite annoying but worth it). This time around — a first in Libromance history — there was not one single note.

It’s not that the books is bad, but it was an unusual read for me. Homesick is a compilation of short stories about people you’ve met or will never meet, people whose lives are all shrouded in the kind of “normalcy” we all refuse to acknowledge. A lot of freaks and kinda freaks. There’s Jeb from An Honest Woman, pining for his new neighbor, decades younger than he is. There’s the story about the small town boy in pursuit of his acting career in Hollywood, who spends most of his time with his tabloid-astrologer-landlady. There’s the story Mr. Wu, a nondescript man obsessed with the cashier at a local arcade. And then a teacher who keeps calling her ex-husband to leave him voice messages (reminiscent of Girl on the Train), drunk and drugged up for the most part:

“Dear Principal Kishka, Thank you for letting me teach at your school. Please throw away the sleeping bag in the cardboard box in the back of my classroom. I have to resign for personal reasons. Just so you know, I’ve been fudging the state exams. Thanks again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

b652bd774d6a57fddf95cb12834e901c

I got really uncomfortable many times throughout reading the book, with a sickening feeling on my mouth. I guess it’s true that she Moshfegh’s work is Flannery O’Connor-esque. I’ve always looked for the “universally relevant” in my book, and I think reading Homesick takes a little more digging.

It’s not for everyone. If you do want a dose of weirdly, dark lit about the other side of the people you know but you’ve never imagined — this might just be your book.

* * *

All artwork is made by the amazing Michael Kerbow.

51zp1zkt38l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press (304 pages)
January 17, 2017
My rating: ★★
Homesick for Another World

June’s Reading List 

Ah, June — the beginning of summer, of sun-kissed bare shoulders dotting sandy white shores, the season of the infamous beach reads. But before I get into the nitty gritty of that, here are this month’s reading list:

Lualhati Bautista’s Desaparesidos, timely because of the Philippines’s current situation (martial law declared in the southern region); The Nine Guardians by Rosario Castellanos, Mexico’s most important women novelist of the century as I just concluded an insightful trip to Mexico City; Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a 2015 novel of an author I’ve been curious about for awhile now; and Oscar Lopez Rivera’s Between Torture and Resistance, a book I recently picked up at an event celebrating Oscar’s freedom after being jailed as a political prisoner.

I looked up at the sky this morning, felt my feet planted on the earth, my heart in place with gratitude for the day. It’s another week of days at the workplace, of meetings building up a brighter future, of 30-minute breaks spent in hospital corners with one of the titles above.

Some days I feel like I’m just drifting along a sea of timelines / guidelines / deadlines, floating mindlessly in a world I’m trying so hard to recreate, a place that extends beyond what I know as home.

And so I come back to reading. Page after page, title after title. On days when I don’t exactly know what to do, I know there will always be books.

May’s Reading List

The month of May is a lot of things: May Day or International Workers’ Day (May 1), Mental Health Awareness Month, Memorial Day in the U.S., Mother’s Day (May 14), Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Malcolm X Day (May 19) among a slew of other celebrations and observances.

I’m still reading Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Amazon | Indiebound) and it’s been an eye-opening experience as I read about Humboldt’s passionate pursuits. His curiosity and drive is infectious, coupled by Wulf’s engaging writing. I find myself looking at plants and trees a little more closely these days, to see with Humboldt’s eyes and find the connection in everything. File this under Japan’s Greenery Day celebrated on May 4th (which is also Star Wars Day).

After being immersed in Humboldt’s world, this month’s reading list is shaping up to be an exciting one! I finally get to some titles I’ve had for a while but haven’t found the time to delve in. Knowing myself, it’s easy to get swayed into reading a book not on my monthly list once it has arrested my attention and my imagination. Sometimes it’s worth it though — see Wulf’s title above.

Keeping up with my year-long commitment of reading a Filipino book author a month and participating in the #DiverseBookBloggers projects, here are this month’s goodies:

img_5719

I’ll be reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: img_5724Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) up next, after coming across a Lithub piece on the historian’s take on Russia, Trump and Terrorism. I’m always curious about what historians think of current political contexts and with tyranny on the rise, it would be a good read to see how it dissects democracy as well as people’s movements. The book is a short read, with only 128 pages. I thought of this book for this month right after reading Claudia Salazar Jimenez’s Blood of the Dawn, which I reviewed just last week about the Peruvian’s communist group The Shining Path.

img_5723Right after is Ambeth R. Ocampo’s Bones of Contention which I picked up in Manila when I was in the Philippines a month ago. When I was at Arkipelago Books a few weeks ago, I had the chance to chop it up with the new owner and I asked about the popularity of Jose Rizal books versus Andres Bonifacio’s. These two Filipino men are heroes in the country, although the former is more prominent. As expected, Rizal’s books are being sought more as opposed to Bonifacio’s. I can go on a different tangent here about the legacy of these two men but I think I’d save that for another post. Watch out for my book review of Ocampo’s book — I’m just as excited to read about Bonifacio as I’m part of a movement he started. I also just looked it up on Amazon recently and whoaaa — it is selling for $651.02! Hit up Arkipelago Books in San Francisco if you want a copy, they may have it or help get it for you.

Another one that I’m already giddy about thinkingimg_5721 of reading is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) because the title alone gives me all the feels. I’m a little bummed that I missed her reading in San Francisco at Green Apple Books in February but I’m all eyes. I’ve recently enjoyed reading short stories and this one is a must, having coveted several literary awards. Keeping up with the #DiverseBookBloggers project, I’m so eager to dive right into the work of a Persian novelist hailed as “our generation’s Flannery O’Connor.”

img_5722And last but definitely not the least, I’m diving back into one of my favorite marketing guru, philosopher, author, blogger, overall life coach’s book The Dip (Amazon | Indiebound). From the day I started reading his work, I’ve been a fan. The conceptualization of this blog came out of reading his daily emails, inspired by the wisdom he imparts. To be clear, he’s a marketing guru professionally. To me though, he is what I would call a modern-day philosopher. Subscribe to his blog if you want to know what I mean. There should really be a national holiday for Seth’s book because it was released about ten years ago this month. It’s only fitting that I end this month on that wonderful note.

* * *

Have you read any of these books? Tell me what you’re reading this month!

The Feminine Ferment, with Claudia Salazar Jiménez

The experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.
–Vladimir Lenin

I’m writing this right after attending a May Day mobilization in Oakland, California, where black and brown people took to the streets to commemorate and continue the struggle of workers. To pay homage to the labor movement, and to continue the resistance of working class communities in the Bay Area and around the world.

And as I march, I look around me and see the beautiful faces of GABRIELA San Francisco — an organization of Filipino women for self-determination and liberation in the Bay — leading, chanting and marching with strength and vigor.

I think of all the revolutionary women I’ve learned about, from whom I’ve derived so much inspiration and strength to continue resisting: Gabriela Silang, Lorena Barros, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Bai Bibyaon Ligkay, Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga. I think about these women as I was reading Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (Amazon | Indiebound), a fiction novel about the women of The Communist Party of Peru, known as the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in the 70’s.

canto-grande-shining-women

Blood of the Dawn (Amazon | Indiebound) is a novel about the lives of three women during the emergence of Peru’s Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla group which started out of universities and distinctive for its promulgation of the strong role and participation of women.

At the center of the novel are three women: Marcela/Marta, Modesta and Melanie, women from different classes of Peruvian society. Melanie is a young photographer, who wants to travel to the country’s small villages and record what’s happening. Modesta is a farmer who’s contented with her life, a witness to the civil war around her. Marcela on the other hand, a teacher, is someone who ends up becoming a member of the Shining Path. Continue reading

Reading Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”

When Zadie Smith writes “Nowadays, I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own,” she was writing the essence of my own soul.

I’ve long been a fan of Zadie, although I’ve never actually finished any of her novels. I remember attempting to read NW but alas, to no avail. I felt disconnected with the story, although I relished the pieces she wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker. But when I first heard of her new book Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound), I knew I had a chance to read Zadie in a whole other way, the same way that Roxane Gay said that her life story would be in good hands if Zadie wrote it.

Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound) is story of two young brown girls in London, with dreams of making it big as dancers. One is the narrator of the story whose life becomes front and center in the book, while the better dancer, Tracey, evidently disappears from the main narrative only to reappear at crucial points of the protagonist’s life.

Carlos Sanchez

Ballerinas by Carlos Sanchez

It’s not uncommon for me to ride hard for the story’s main characters: I fell in love with Ifemelu and Obinze in Adichie’s Americanah, felt for Cora in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and celebrated the nameless narrator of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

With Swing Time, I found it hard to even cheer for the protagonist. I found her lacking in personality, but still eager to read on to see what would anchor my time in her. I never reached that point until the final pages of the book. Continue reading

Living as Sparrow, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer in Communist China, with Madeleine Thien

“One thing I have learned, dear Sparrow, is that light is never still and solid and so it is with love. Light can be split into many directions. Its nature is to break apart.”

I’m not sure where I should start after reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Amazon | Indie Bound) but here are three things I know: 1) reading a story that challenges your own political ideology is tricky, 2) it takes a great storyteller to illustrate the complexity and intimacy — really, the humanity — of the other side, and 3) that the author was fully able to transcend point no. 1 and effectively accomplish point no. 2.

(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

It is the story of an inter-generational  Chinese multi-family, a sweeping epic of politics, love and music. It is an intimate look at how the characters dealt with living in Communist China before, during and after the Great Proletarian Revolution, the demonstrations and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all the way to Canada for a life of quiet and refuge.

What enamored me even more with Thien’s masterpiece is how at the intersection of these families is a piece of delicate literature, the mysterious “Book of Records” which has been passed down from generation to generation. It was an exhilarating and heartbreaking read, the kind that stays with you for days. Even now as I write this review, I can still remember certain scenes in my head: Sparrow at the Conservatory and then at the factories, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer on the run, Big Mother Knife on the train back home to Ba Lute.

The book begins with Marie, a ten-year old girl who lives in Canada with her mother. After learning about her father’s (Kai) suicide in Hongkong, she grieves and recalls the most tender moments with him. Soon, the family of two receives a visitor, Ai-Ming, the daughter of Kai’s old friend, Sparrow. It is through Ai-Ming that Marie learns about Communist China, the friendship of their fathers and one of the reasons why Ai-Ming left.

Ai-Ming hesitated for a long time before answering. Finally, she told me about days and nights when more than a million people had come to Square. Students had begun a hunger strike that lasted seven days and Ai-ming herself had spent nights on the concrete, sleeping beside her best friend, Yiwen. They sat in the open, with almost nothing to shelter them from the sun or rain. During those six weeks of demonstrations, she had felt at home in China; she had understood, for the first time, what it felt to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside million of others. She didn’t want to be her own still river, she wished to be a part of the ocean.

CHINA-BEIJING SPRING-DEMO

In a time when protests are erupting all over the country against Trump’s fascist regime, there were moments when I identified with Ai-Ming and her generation’s struggle for democracy. At the same time, she was living in a much different context, with an entirely different form of government. What was clear to me though was the power of people, (specifically students) en masse to mobilize against the state, a ripple in the fabric of Ai-Ming’s generation heard throughout the world.

But the story started way before the massacre, the protests and the hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. The story started right after the Communist revolution in China, when the Party led by Mao Zedong gained control. Revolutionary fervor was high, and Thien gave a glimpse of this vividly through a family living in Shanghai. There was Big Mother Knife, a matriarch, married to Ba Lute who was a Party cadre with their children Sparrow, a gifted composer and the younger brothers, Flying Bear and Da Shan. There was Big Mother’s sister Swirl, her husband Wen the Dreamer and their daughter, Zhuli. And there was Kai, a friend of both Zhuli and Sparrow. These characters all take center stage at some point in the book, overlapping and seamlessly weaving into one another. But first, a few basics.

tumblr_oc480ov3ie1vqv97bo1_r4_1280

Continue reading

Revisiting History, with Rabih Alameddine

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. 
–Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I walked up the stairs to the Poetry Room of the City Lights Bookstore one evening, eager to see Rabih Alameddine and listen to a reading from his most recent book, The Angel of HistoryWhile I did not know much about the new book, I read An Unnecessary Woman this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is every book lover’s delight, and you can read about my review of the book here.

Rabih read two passages from the book, and both times I held my breath at equal intervals — unfamiliar with the story but intimately acquainted with the themes of memory, of remembering all too well.

It couldn’t have been a better time to be reminded of not forgetting. With the onslaught of cultural and political amnesia these days, how can the importance of history be reinstated in a way that fosters consciousness?

The imminent return of a ruling family that nearly destroyed my home country, the Philippines, is terrifying, while the rise of a fascist government in the U.S., which has unleashed a wave of white supremacy all over the country  (even in the most self-proclaimed progressive bastions) is alarming.

aids1

Given the current climate, Rabih was right. And he was bringing up what used to be a significant issue among the population — the AIDS epidemic.

I watched as Rabih expressed his hurt, anger, grief and disbelief, at how easy it is to forget. That just few decades ago, gay men were dying in incredulous numbers as the AIDS epidemic run rampant in places like San Francisco and New York City. I admit that I’m a bad gay ally — that as a queer woman, I really don’t know much about what happened.

The Angel of History explores the life of Jacob, a gay Arab man living in San Francisco whose friends and partner succumbed to the AIDS epidemic. He’s grieving, in utter desolation because of the loss of lives, and he lives out his life as if writing an endless letter to his deceased partner he calls “Doc.” Continue reading

A Crisis of Values, with Karan Mahajan

This is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.

160404_r27906-1200I picked up Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs a week ago, after seeing it on the National Book Awards longlist for fiction. I’ve been on a literary fiction trajectory these past few weeks, after being immersed in the brilliant work of Colson Whitehead and Brit Bennett.

We live in a time of war. While the ongoing civil war in Syria is the most apparent, the struggle for power around the world has created tensions met with varying degrees of violence. There are threats of nuclear bombs being detonated, militant groups vying for territories and threats of violence in different parts of the world: Philippines, South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what counts as a “bomb” is not just merely physical, but on political, social and emotional levels as well. After all, no one saw this bomb coming: Donald Trump winning the election. What Mahajan explores in the book are not just the actual bombs, but the interconnected-ness of the origins, the bomb itself and the aftermath.

At the heart of the story is Mansoor, a victim of the Lajpat Nagar market bombing in Delhi, India. He was only 11 years old when the bombing happened, killing two of his friends — the brothers Tushar and Nakul — instantly. The brothers’ parents, Vikas and Deepa Khurana, spent the subsequent years in alternating periods of rage and grief, as Mansoor and family tried to heal from the tragedy.

People were closest to animals when they were sleeping and fighting for wakefulness. Or dying and fighting for life.

220616_lajpatnagarmarket-delhi_am

Lajpat Nagar market, Delhi. (Source)

Continue reading

How to Mother, with Brit Bennett

“An inside hurt was supposed to stay inside.
How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you can’t hide.”
The Mothers, Brit Bennett

cveao29wyaa-0au

Me, a copy of The Mothers, accompanying tote and saltwater. (October, 2016)

Often times, we are attuned to grand and sweeping tales about life and death, love and heartbreak, stories which take us to new landscapes, push us to new heights, until we find a well-hidden lesson in one of the pages, so minute that if we weren’t paying attention closely, we would’ve missed it.

When I picked up Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, I knew that it wasn’t one of those tales. It was a book about a small black community in southern California, written in a folkloric way with the nuances of modern technology. The book is named after a group of older women in the community, wise in their years and lovingly all-knowing.

We were girls once. As hard as that is to believe.

Oh, you can’t see it now — our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks dropping. That’s what happens when you get old. Every part of you drops, as if the body is moving closer to where it’s from and where it’ll return.

The Mothers’ lives revolved around Upper Room, a small church in Oceanside, California and its attendants. There was Nadia Turner, a young woman who lived with her father (Robert) and whose mom (Elise) shot herself one day; her best friend Aubrey, a quiet girl who ran away from home (and her mother); and Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son, Nadia’s former lover who became Aubrey’s husband.

And while Bennett illustrates each character’s struggle with a depth that readers can empathize with, there are also deeper tensions that she addresses with lucidity.

Nadia keeps replaying details leading up to her mother’s suicide in mind, hoping she can find an answer to a growing number of why’s. One can only assume the weight imposed upon a frightened girl, the uncertainties weighing her down. Grief doesn’t have the same face, but it touches the heart and soul in almost the same way.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

Continue reading